Last night’s private viewing of One Law for All’s 4th Passion for Freedom Art Festival was absolutely brilliant. I spent most of the night on the couch in the back feeling ill but managed to give my speech. The art was fantastic – some shocking, others heart-wrenching or inspiring, and all of them thought-provoking. The festival is on until 10 November so drop by if you can. More details on the night’s winners are to follow but here is a piece by Nick Cohen in the Spectator about it. You can also see some photos of the night here. The people’s vote went to a painting in homage to Pussy Riot (see featured photo). Here’s my speech:
Under totalitarianism and dictatorship, one eats “fear for breakfast, fear for lunch and for dinner, fear” says Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.
Fear is palpable when one lives under an Islamic inquisition, even if it’s not experienced directly.
Even here in Europe – Islamism’s Sharia laws and fatwas of censorship and death for everything from blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy become secular ones – where the artist or dissenter is not routinely imprisoned or killed (even if the threat is always there) but proclaimed ‘guilty’ of offence, disrespect, intolerance, and Islamophobia, thereby making censorship and self-censorship ‘justifiable’.
Where it rules, Islamism forbids you to dissent; here, it convinces you that dissent is impossible.
Yet fear is only part of the story; it is what we do despite the fear that counts.
In the late 1980s, whilst working in Sudan, I and a Burmese colleague whose name I cannot recall initiated an underground human rights organisation opposed to the Islamic regime there. When things got tricky, he said the fear was secondary. Taking action – even when one is afraid – that is the sign of true courage.
Though I do often wonder who is really afraid of whom?
Islamists are even afraid of 15 year old Malala who wants the right to go to school.
It is they who are afraid of the truth. And of us.
One Law for All – and its Passion for Freedom Art Festival – speaks truth to power and demands change, despite the fear. But it also aims to honour our artists and our dissenters.
No society or community is homogeneous. Dissent and great art is alive even in the furthest and darkest corners of the globe. As is immense courage.
As Salman Rushdie says: “Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.”
One of the artists celebrated at the festival, Ai Wei Wei says: “If we don’t push”, nothing changes. Clearly, change it must.